Most people don’t like snakes. Many don’t like insects, either. Or bats. Or rats. Or anything that falls into the “creepy-crawly-slimy-gross” category. Some people fear storms, refuse to use elevators, or panic on planes. Still others break into a cold sweat at the thought of giving a speech, using a public restroom, or having a procedure done that includes the potential sight of blood.
If your partner has a phobia, the dislike of whatever the phobia is centered around goes way beyond just an “Ewwww!” reaction. By definition, phobias are irrational fears about something that is not posing a danger. People who have phobias generally know their reaction is overblown, but feel powerless to try to change their thoughts. Many don’t even know the origin of their phobia, although many phobias do develop around a traumatic experience (such as having a fear of dogs after being bitten as a child).
Witnessing your partner having a negative reaction in response to encountering a phobia trigger can be frightening. Having to change your plans in order to accommodate your partner’s phobias can get annoying, such as driving a long distance because your partner won’t fly, or not being able to live in your dream apartment because your partner refuses to use an elevator. What can you do to help your partner deal with their phobias?
Helping in the moment
Let’s say you are out on a walk with your partner, who has a fear of dogs, and suddenly, an off-leash dog comes bounding towards you. The owner is nowhere in sight, and your partner panics. Your partner may freeze, run, scream, start sweating profusely, and/or become dizzy, to name a few symptoms. Here’s what you can do:
- Remain calm, and ask your partner if they want your help. If your partner has had this phobia for many years, they may have ways to cope on their own, and your trying to “help” may not be needed. If so, step out of the way, but keep an eye on your partner until the situation is over.
- If your partner does want your help, use your body to run interference between your partner and the feared object. In this case, get yourself between your partner and the dog (if it is safe for you to do so). If your partner has a fear of insects, be the one to take care of it. (Later, we’ll discuss treatments that will help your partner overcome the phobia and not have you in the position of being the “hero” all the time!)
- Take care of whatever needs to be done in the situation while allowing your partner space to calm down. That may mean grabbing ahold of the dog and finding its owner, cleaning up the remnants of the trigger, or anything else that will restore the situation back to normal.
- When your partner is calmer, ask if there is anything else you can do to help. If yes, do it. If no, a little validation might make your partner feel better. Then drop the subject…for now.
Treatment for phobias
Phobias are a type of anxiety, and anxiety is one of the most treatable psychiatric disorders. Phobias can be treated fairly quickly through cognitive-behavioral therapy that is delivered by a trained therapist. Your partner and the therapist will develop a specific exposure plan to help your partner become desensitized to the trigger, and also develop coping skills for when they are triggered.
Getting your partner to agree to treatment can be tricky, though. After all, does it really sound like fun to be exposed to something you are scared to death of, in the presence of a stranger?
As I mentioned in the beginning, phobias can be frightening and frustrating for both partners. They can seriously affect quality of life for the person who has a phobia, and it is not fair to ask you, the well partner, to constantly accommodate for your partner’s fears. Approaching the topic of getting treatment when you are both calm–not immediately after there has been an incident–is the most sensitive way to approach it. This post on effective communication has some tips on how to approach this topic. Having information about what treatment entails can help reassure your partner that treatment is the right way to go, and being a supportive partner can make the experience less scary, too.